An i for an i

Barry Marlow’s Blog

 I’m dreading my phone up-grade.

The last time I walked into the O2 store it took 20 seconds before I was utterly lost in techno-gabble.

As the kindly assistant didn’t, but probably yearned to say ‘you’re not really the demographic we focus on.’

I can’t be annoyed because, technically, it’s true. I know my limits. I don’t find technology very sexy. Don’t get me wrong. This is a blog, so the irony can’t be lost on you. But the actual technology, the under-the-bonnet stuff, is wasted on me.

Examining this technological reluctance, I think I’ve discovered my resistance. There’s too much information.

To really engage with something you’ve got to be able to take it in. I haven’t read my car manual because there’s too much information. Many housing reports I should read, or should have read, but there’s too much information. I don’t insist on the executive summary. I just want the whole thing summarised.

So, with this as an appetiser, I am staring at one of housing’s biggest threats or most fantastic opportunities – I.T. That stands for Information Technology. To me, the title could easily say quantum physics or calculate your own gas bill. As Shirley Conran said, ‘Life’s too short to stuff a mushroom’.

But I’m curious. Faced with the threats of I.T. (of which there are many) I’ve decided to do something illogical. I’m attending the National Housing Federation I.T. conference in Manchester.

IT blog







The 6 i’s

I have 6 reasons for visiting. I mean i, not just ‘I’.


In the attempt for housing organisations to be comprehensively fair, the amount of information spewed into the marketplace is amazing.

It would be alright if most of it was informative. But most of it is about the organisation, in self-appraising detail displayed in exploding pie-charts and calculus-defying percentages.

Housing web-sites are, as Dave Gorman would say, ‘goodish’. They normally contain lots of information. Lots. As Bromford’s Innovation Coach Paul Taylor said recently,

“Our sector record for transforming customer experience isn’t that great. Your average takeaway pizza business has a better on-line offering than a housing association”

Harsh, but true. The conference offers a session ‘social housing at a crossroad’. I will go to that and see which turning the business intends to take.


You see, I want my information to be interesting. So I’m replacing one i for another. Now this feels better. I’m more engaged.

Interesting means relevant, personalised – or, as my O2 assistant would have it – in the right demographic.

This is all about simple understanding. Basic rapport wrapped in technology. It humanises a box.

Perhaps that’s why a session at the conference on ‘building better relationships’ recognises this. My expectation (as a customer) is to see how I.T. can be Interesting Technology. Whether the information thinks about the audience rather than the provider.

I’m sure my car manual contains lots of valuable information. It’s not very interesting. Our tenancy agreements contain nothing but valuable information. But are they interesting? The answer is probably not because most housing web-sites can’t be bothered to include even a sample copy. Even to download. Strange.


I can’t blame housing for this apparent inertia. Good grief, my own technological inertia is obvious. Ironically, inertia is highly marketable.

The conference has a session all about ‘smart technology and self-service’. We know the business case (another session) for this. Its expensive operating a comprehensive, reactive customer service when many customers are able, willing and actually prefer to do their own shopping. But only if it’s interesting.

Our traditional insistence that we try to be everything to everyone has unintended consequence. Services become expensive, less value for money and many customers learn to expect the dependency that this reactivity promotes. Or, service inertia. Clever business capitalises on this and people like me. It’s called default.

The book Nudge (Thaler and Sunstein) says: “Never under-estimate the power of inertia. That power can be harnessed’.

It points to people like me in that vast technological advances included in my smart phone are defaults set by the manufacturer. In fact, most of us leave around 80% of the default settings untouched.

The good news is that thoughtful defaults can nudge certain behaviours in favour of the provider with the customer happy to play along to the conscious or sub-conscious message.

For smart marketers in housing this is powerful. But there’s a problem. Many of us simply don’t even use the useful stuff. And, in housing, it’s a business disadvantage. As I.T. consultant Tony Smith says:

“As a sector we don’t make the most of our systems on the whole, particularly in arrears automation, agreements, self-service portals and leveraging mobile systems for interacting with customers”


Thank you Tony Smith. Not only should my technology be interesting, the inherent inertia should nudge me to be more interactive.

I’m not so much interested in what it is, but what it does.

Salix Homes had some housing-wide publicity recently when it announced its ability to accept rent through Facebook. In the wide world of I.T. this is ‘normal’. The fanfare it received in housing compared it to re-inventing the wheel. So I’m keen to listen – no interact with – the conference session on ‘becoming a social business’ to see how housing I.T. is actually developing how people can stop ‘reporting’ repairs through interacting with maintenance, not to read a lettable standard but interact with virtual tours, to stop applying for eligibility but interacting with the gamification of pre-tenancy quizzes and multi-media.

I think that’s clever. Not unique. Just intelligent.


Housing people are clever. But it’s not the intellectual intelligence that I’m interested in. It’s intelligence. Data.

Big data is fashionable. I’m not knocking it because data is everywhere and everyone knows and recognises both its fears and its uses.

Housing has been in catch-up mode for a few years capturing profiling data on its customers. A little late to the party perhaps but hey, arrived eventually. Unfortunately, people like Wonga and Brighthouse got there first and drunk all the red wine.


Intelligent Technology is more than collecting volumes of information. The conference looks at ‘designing better services’ and this can only be debated with the intelligent evidence that supports ‘better’ and can compare ‘better’ with ‘worse’.

Customer profiling is now about customer segmentation. Better service is now customer profitability analyses. Service improvement is now reliant on return on investment, or social return on investment.

Better service must equate to better business. Better business means better relationships with better outcomes – for both the organisation and the customer.

If this can’t be investigated intelligently – why bother at all?


Another session at the conference is about ‘innovations for the next era’. This fascinates me as I might not have too many eras left. However, my demographic does tell me that eras in technology are notoriously short.

The first text message was sent in December 1992. I had worked in housing for 20 years by then mostly using a pencil. Such transformation. But let’s be careful about transformation, as digital strategist Jeremy Waite points out:

“The professionals who talk about transformation know full well that true digital transformation requires an understanding of people, culture, organisation structure AND technology”

Tell you what I find inspiring about that quote is the inclusion of people in digital transformation. We’re back at the crossroad where the conference has a session signposted as ‘better workforce skills’. People? I shall go there to see if I can re-set my tablet with a pencil.

So I suppose that like many people in my demographic I’d like technological advance to slow down a little, take in the scenery and stop every two hours for the toilet.

But it’s this very convenience that attracts me to blogging, Twitter, LinkedIn and other wacky advances – like being able to buy a book at 3.30 am. Or a customer receiving personal advice on a money management chatroom on a Sunday morning, when it worries them most.

It’s a weird perspective but, I think, not a totally unique one. Technology moves fast. Sometimes too fast to breathe and admire. As Tony Smith also says, quite correctly:

“We have a lot to do and many organisations need help to see the capabilities of the well-focused I.T. they already have

If information means intelligence that better inspires the skills of enthusiastic people, then housing and I.T. have a brilliant and exciting future together. Maximise and interact with the systems you already have, release the inertia and realise the potential of both human and machine.

Look around at your systems. Is this potential being identified? Does that potential match that of the humans?

If all it takes is an i for an i to change the thought patterns and mindset, then so be IT.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s